Posted by: Kash Farooq | August 15, 2013

On the Origin of Species By Means of Natural Selection – by Charles Darwin

Full title: “On the Origin of Species By Means of Natural Selection, or, the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life” by Charles Darwin.

We were discussing this book on the #PopSciBookClub forum and I thought I’d write a quick post about it.

It is a book that everyone has heard of, but not everyone has read. My recommendation? Read it!

Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Considering it was published in 1869, it’s surprisingly readable. I recommend you read it if you haven’t.  You can get it free on Amazon Kindle.

The first few chapters are brilliant and I’d recommend everyone read these, if nothing else. I really enjoyed seeing all the famous quotes in context, including the ones quote-mined by creationists!

After the first few chapters he goes into all the evidence that he has gradually gathered to justify his statements made in the first few chapters. I think that you could potentially skip most of these. Obviously, at the time of publication, he had to “show all his working” – I skimmed through most of this; I didn’t feel I needed to see his evidence . It’s a bit like if you pick up a scientific paper: you can just read the abstract, introduction and conclusion – and you only need to go into method and results if you don’t believe the author.

I highlighted loads of text while I was reading. If you don’t want to read the book, you can at least read these beautiful passages!

On species being independently created:

Although much remains obscure, and will long remain obscure, I can entertain no doubt, after the most deliberate study and dispassionate judgment of which I am capable, that the view which most naturalists entertain, and which I formerly entertained–namely, that each species has been independently created–is erroneous. I am fully convinced that species are not immutable; but that those belonging to what are called the same genera are lineal descendants of some other and generally extinct species, in the same manner as the acknowledged varieties of any one species are the descendants of that species. Furthermore, I am convinced that Natural Selection has been the main but not exclusive means of modification.

On selective breeding:

The key is man’s power of accumulative selection: nature gives successive variations; man adds them up in certain directions useful to him. In this sense he may be said to make for himself useful breeds.

Introducing the term “Natural Selection”:

…two countries very differently circumstanced, individuals of the same species, having slightly different constitutions or structure, would often succeed better in the one country than in the other, and thus by a process of “natural selection,” as will hereafter be more fully explained, two sub-breeds might be formed.

On variation and the struggle for life:

Owing to this struggle for life, any variation, however slight and from whatever cause proceeding, if it be in any degree profitable to an individual of any species, in its infinitely complex relations to other organic beings and to external nature, will tend to the preservation of that individual, and will generally be inherited by its offspring.

Natural Selection:

I have called this principle, by which each slight variation, if useful, is preserved, by the term of Natural Selection, in order to mark its relation to man’s power of selection.

But Natural Selection, as we shall hereafter see, is a power incessantly ready for action, and is as immeasurably superior to man’s feeble efforts, as the works of Nature are to those of Art.

Natural selection can act only by the preservation and accumulation of infinitesimally small inherited modifications, each profitable to the preserved being; and as modern geology has almost banished such views as the excavation of a great valley by a single diluvial wave, so will natural selection, if it be a true principle, banish the belief of the continued creation of new organic beings, or of any great and sudden modification in their structure.

Darwin didn’t understand the cause of variation:

Whatever the cause may be of each slight difference in the offspring from their parents–and a cause for each must exist–it is the steady accumulation, through natural selection, of such differences, when beneficial to the individual, that gives rise to all the more important modifications of structure, by which the innumerable beings on the face of this earth are enabled to struggle with each other, and the best adapted to survive.

On the incomplete fossil record:

Whilst the bed of the sea is stationary or is rising, or when very little sediment is being deposited, there will be blanks in our geological history. The crust of the earth is a vast museum; but the natural collections have been made only at intervals of time immensely remote.

The eye:

To suppose that the eye, with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest possible degree. Yet reason tells me, that if numerous gradations from a perfect and complex eye to one very imperfect and simple, each grade being useful to its possessor, can be shown to exist; if further, the eye does vary ever so slightly, and the variations be inherited, which is certainly the case; and if any variation or modification in the organ be ever useful to an animal under changing conditions of life, then the difficulty of believing that a perfect and complex eye could be formed by natural selection, though insuperable by our imagination, can hardly be considered real. How a nerve comes to be sensitive to light, hardly concerns us more than how life itself first originated; but I may remark that several facts make me suspect that any sensitive nerve may be rendered sensitive to light, and likewise to those coarser vibrations of the air which produce sound.

Slight successive variations:

Why should all the parts and organs of many independent beings, each supposed to have been separately created for its proper place in nature, be so invariably linked together by graduated steps? Why should not Nature have taken a leap from structure to structure? On the theory of natural selection, we can clearly understand why she should not; for natural selection can act only by taking advantage of slight successive variations; she can never take a leap, but must advance by the shortest and slowest steps.

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